Connecting the dots: Rawlins, Steamboat, Kremmling

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Divide-style riding– the open dirt roads that are influencing a new generation of cyclecampers– has provided me with a home for the summer.  Daily challenges and joys come from climbing and descending the skeleton of the American west, while every evening is topped with delightful campsites, for free.  The Great Divide Route is the Trans-Am Route of the modern day, as Fargos and Trolls are the equivalents of old Trek and Fuji touring frames.  The Divide is the fusion of our American cycletouring heritage and several decades of mountain biking– it’s a way of connecting the dots and getting away from it all.

Most road maps facilitate travel along the paths of least resistance, though river valleys and along interstate highways.  Lesser known routes encounter greater resistance– in route planning and topography– but uncover the uncommon character that is hidden in the folds of the land.  The Great Divide Route is changing the way American cyclists look at cycletouring and is both ready-made and quite rideable, lessening the resistance to “getting away”.  While a single day’s ride on the Divide might be challenging, the open road ahead is an inviting yellow brick road of logistic simplicity.  Turn-by-turn directions and comprehensive resources for cyclists (groceries, water, lodging, camping, police, etc.) are listed on the maps, in addition to elevation profiles.  Concerns that the Divide reaches deep into the wilderness, days away from food and resources are unnecessary.  Every few days the rider encounters a proper grocery, and water is not an issue in most places; when it is less plentiful one simply carries a little more for the duration described in the maps.  If the Divide calls to you, I’m telling you that you can!  You still have to ride your bike up and over mountains, but it couldn’t be any easier.

The Great Divide Route is the realization of an idea with roots in the original Bikecentennial route (renamed Trans-Am), which was meant to uncover America’s backroads.  As originally designed, the cross-country route included miles of gravel farm roads inspired by terrain encountered on the Siples’ Hemistour ride.   Overwhelmingly, the first wave of Bikecentennial riders complained about the hardship of riding dirt on the typical 27×1 1/4 (630 x 32mm) tires of the time.  The Siples had ridden handbuilt 650b wheels laced to Campagnolo hubs, with an approximate 40mm tire.  Edit: I’m currently researching the tires used on Hemistour, as they are simultaneously and incongruously referred to as 650B (584mm) and 26 x 1 3/8 (590mm).  June Siple has a record of equipment used, and may soon shed some light.  Ten years later as ATBs exploded onto the market. riders finally had the appropriate equipment to explore these dirt routes, especially the more challenging rides into the mountains.  Meeting over margaritas and Mexican food in 1994, as legend has it, Michael McCoy conspired with ACA staff to design a dirt route along the spine of the country. Within the year the Great Divide Route was born, and the rest is (recent) history.

Today, more people are touring on mountain bike tires and mountain bikes, in the mountains.  Riders are discovering the value of lightweight packing as backpackers have known for years.  The combination opens up the opportunity to ride high mountain roads and singletrack for multiple days at a time.  My own evolution as a rider mirrors the history of American cycletouring, and after a few long years the final and most contemporary piece to the puzzle will fall into place on the Colorado Trail, and beyond.  They call it mountain biking or bikepacking, but it’s still just a bike ride.

Connecting the dots from Rawlins, WY to Steamboat Springs, CO:

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I sleep atop mountains and passes whenever the weather is clear and calm, with only my sleeping pad and bag on a nylon groundcloth.  Since entering Montana, most nights have been spent en plain air.  I keep most of my gear packed away, but will remove my cookset for some dinner or tea in the evening.  Now out of grizzly country, I gave my bear deterrent spray to some CDT hikers and I can leave the stove set up for the morning.  When I’m feeling especially organized and indulgent, I’ll prepare the pot with clean water so that it can be heated as soon as I awake for coffee or tea, like the auto-brew setting on your home system.  The Penny Stove that I use was built almost a year ago while in Steamboat Springs, and has seen about 150 days of use.  The steel Klean Kanteen is versatile in that I can defrost frozen water from a cold night, or sterilize stream water right in the bottle.  An enameled steel camping mug isn’t much heavier than popular Lexan or plastic models, and can similarly be used for cooking or heating water.  While I technically only carry one 0.8L cookpot, these versatile vessels allow more creative meals and hot drinks.  A 1L plastic drink bottle contains fuel, of which I’ve mostly been sourcing the yellow bottles of Heet (automotive antifreeze, methanol).  In bigger cities I can buy a full liter of ethanol, or denatured alcohol at paint and hardware stores.  In France, corner stores sold a 95% concentration of ethanol as a household cleaner, always in an inspiring floral or citrus fragrance for two euro.  In Mexico, “alcohol industrial” can be had at some paint stores, which wasn’t an entirely reliable source.  I finally realized that the rubbing alcohol sold in Mexican pharmacies was a 70-90% concentration of ethanol, whereas rubbing alcohol in the US is almost exclusively isopropyl alcohol.   Isopropyl burns incompletely and leaves a sooty mess on your pots.  Inevitably, it makes a sooty mess on other things until you look like a coal miner on a bicycle.  For reference, higher concentrations of isopropyl alcohol burn just fine, if necessary.

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With tired legs from several weeks of riding without a rest, I find cover during the heat of the day along the Little Snake River.  Of course, this was a fine swimming spot, if a little shallow.  My transition into Colorado signals a more temperate climate– surface water and shade quickly reappear after a few scorching days in central and southern Wyoming.  Aspens provide wonderfully cool shade while climbing, and a stark contrast to western skies.

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Steamboat Springs is a tourist town, a ski town, and a little hard to crack at first.  Local businesses are busy crafting and creating, and a visit to the Moots factory is inspiring (10 AM on M-W-F).  Kent Erickson, who started Moots in the 80’s, now crafts fine titanium bikes in a space shared with Orange Peel Bikes, a must-see building and a fine shop.  Smartwool offices are in Steamboat as well, and my host for the night offered some socks and a lightweight merino sweater– he’s a quality control agent for the company, and is full of socks that didn’t make the cut.  Finally, I contacted Big Agnes in advance for some tent repairs after four years of hard use.  I’m constantly seeking better solutions to equipment, but my Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 is hard to beat and while I’ve looked for other options with curiosity, nothing improves upon the blend of durability and light weight.  It sleeps two, but is light enough to carry for solo adventures.  It is conveniently freestanding, which is great during the buggy season and the rainfly can be used without the mesh tent body for good ventilation during a summer rain shower.  In more extreme weather, a total of 13 guy lines ensure a solid stance against the wind and rain.  While in town last year they repaired a large tear in my rainfly due to a zipper mishap; this year, some sections of my tent poles needed replacement and a finicky zipper was repaired.  It’s nice to have contact with real people, with real skills and expertise to help sort out technical issues.  If I had gone to REI, they would have shrugged and replaced the entire product.  Repairs are a much better solution, and the cost to get me back under cover was only $10.

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The ride from Steamboat Springs to Kremmling is pleasant and familiar as I’ve now ridden the route over Lynx Pass three times.  It was part of my path from Boulder to Steamboat last fall to meet Cass and Nancy in early October for some Divide riding.  Check out Nancy’s first day of bicycle touring, climbing at 8000ft over Lynx Pass on dirt roads in the snow!  At the same time I ran into Greg Mu on the road, riding a look-alike Surly Troll to what Cass was riding.  Whose Troll was born first?  Greg insists it was his.  We all rode together for a period and had a great time, despite cold nights and some early season snow.

I overheated and perspired through my first freezing night, even though I was sleeping without a tent  After buying and returning a half-dozen sleeping bags to REI over the last few years, I finally found my ideal bag at The Trailside in Missoula, MT last fall.  The Mont-Bell U.L. Super Spiral Down Hugger 3 is filled with high-quality down and is rated to 30, which is an accurate description of it’s warmth.  The bag is constructed in a spiral stitch pattern with elastic stitching which ensures that the down is close to the body while sleeping, but that nighttime movements are not constricted by a narrow bag.  The advertised weight of the bag is 1 lb. 6 oz., and compresses to the size of a cantaloupe or smaller.  An Etowah vapor barrier liner (VBL) from Rivendell keeps me warm down to 10 deg, with a lightweight down jacket and a blend of Ibex and Smartwool long underwear.  I have not been carrying the VBL or down jacket through the summer months.

Connecting the dots from Steamboat to Kremmling:

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My host in Kremmling is a recent Pugsley owner, with a glowing enthusiasm for fat tires.  Without saying, we got along just fine.  In a few weeks, he’ll set off for the Divide with my maps on his new fat tires.  There are great camping and riding opportunities north of town, most of which is BLM property.  Camping along Muddy Creek is recommended.

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The promise of fat tires

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Pneumatic tires and large volume rubber had been in use for almost a century when in the late 70’s a strong lightweight frame with adequate brakes and gears turned an average balloon bike– a klunker capable of country lanes– into a performance machine capable of climbing and descending off-pavement.  These were all-terrain bikes, later dubbed “mountain bikes”.  As sales of fat tires grew in the 80’s, bicycling magazines published forward-thinking expeditions to Everest Base Camp on Specialized Stumpjumpers, out the abandoned Canol Road on Ritchey frames in the Northwest Territory of Canada, and along the flanks and spines of local mountains everywhere.  Never before had bikes been able to ride these routes and riders were willing to dream new places to ride; as well, riders quickly found the limits of the new bikes.  The Canol Road, for example, is unrideable for much of the distance due to washouts, overgrowth and avalanche– and thus, the term hike-a-bike was born.  Still, prices for these new machines fell and consumers bought up “mountain bikes” by the millions, finding varied uses.  Many bikes became daily commuters on urban streets, cycletourists found larger tires and strong frames to be ideal for long distance travel on unknown roads, and some riders actually rode singletrack trails as pictured in magazines.  But many (or most) mountain bikes, like Jeeps and Ford Explorers, spend very little time in the Tolkein environment pictured in sales catalogs and magazines.   Consumers buy mountain bikes because they promise the ability to go places, simply because they can– it’s the promise of fat tires.

Winter endurance racing and sand-crawling cyclists birthed fatbikes over the past twenty years, and out of a slow stew of development the Surly Pugsley was born in 2006 as a mass-market option.  The purple Pugsley that I ride is the analogue of the 1981 Stumpjumper, a ready-made option to those curious about riding large-volume rubber.  In 2011, Salsa introduced a complete Mukluk build and Surly followed suit with a complete Pugsley– 2011-2012 has seen the explosion of fat tires as a result.  Being able to enter a shop, point at a bike and ride out the door is a boon to sales and to curious consumers.  A dismal snowfall in the lower 48 has done nothing to lessen interest in fatbikes this past winter, as curious and creative riders are finding new ways to ride big rubber.  That’s the promise of fat tires– new places to ride, and new ways to ride.  It’s more than just a snow bike.

Over the past few months I’ve explored the capacity of my Pugsley in reverse, finding that it can ride pavement and the graded dirt roads of the Great Divide and the Top of the World Highway on 2.35″ Schwalbe Big Apple tires.  I refit “ultralight” 120 tpi Surly Larry tires to the 65mm Marge Lite rims a few weeks ago and have been riding the varied terrain of the Great Divide Route through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado.  Skeptical onlookers point out that I’m still not putting fat tires to full use– much of what I’ve ridden can be ridden on a normal mountain bike– but the sandy soils of the Western Idaho Trail and the intermittent washboard of the Divide are minimized under large-volume rubber.  There are more instances where I am happy to have big tires than I curse the disadvantages– there’s more to gain than to lose.

We’re easily convinced that 29″ tires make obstacles “smaller” (despite statistically significant evidence to prove their efficiency), but many riders are calling fat tires a fad, and even worse, sacrilege.  Admitting the obvious penalties of weight and rolling resistance on pavement, fat tires improve upon all three features of the pneumatic tire: traction, suspension and flotation.  If you don’t need it, you don’t need it; but if you are curious and can dream up new ways to ride then it’s available through your local bike shop.  It’s 1984 all over again, and in addition to the refined custom options, Surlys and Salsas are filling the floors of shops all over the country like Stumpjumpers and High Sierras.  With the assurance and insurance of big rubber, I can plan a trip of unknown routes through the mountains and deserts of Colorado, Utah and Arizona.  I’ve passed-by and turned away from enough rough-stuff riding opportunities in the past to know that I need a bike with some teeth.  With new riding opportunities ahead I can point and shoot without limits, as my fatbike has teeth.

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The direct comparison of fatbikes to “normal” bikes is often unfair.  First, the riding conditions in which they are compared is necessarily biased towards a typical mountain bike, unless you’d previously included a lot of loose sandy hike-a-bike in your rides, snowy commutes, muddy trails or deeply rutted roads.  Secondly, comparing bike weights of a refined mountain bike to a base model fatbike is also unfair, even at the same price point.  Comparing bikes based on cost benefits the mass market offerings with “normal” 26″ and 29″ wheels; much of the additional cost and weight of a fatbike comes from specialized componentry, mainly rims and tires, which are expensive due to limited production.  Rim weights have been cut in half in the last half-decade of fatbike development and the new Surly Marge Lite rim is only 690g (the 50mm Jeff Jones rim is 660g), both of which approach the weight of standard-duty XC rims.   The weight and price of fatbike equipment is only coming down.  Within the year, I suspect the Surly Pugsley will lose the 1150g DH Large Marge rim from the stock build; another tire manufacturer will enter the game, undercutting the weight of Innova tires and reducing rolling resistance with more advanced casings; and non-utilitarian offerings such as the new Salsa Beargrease (28.5 lb XC and race-oriented model) will change the way we think about these modern day klunkers.  A studded fat tire, no matter the price, will be a panacea for dedicated winter commuters in Alaska and other consistently wintry climes, where a single commute can include fresh snow over hardpack, glare ice and icy rutted lanes.

Looking ahead even further, the leap to 3.7-4.5″ tires has left a huge gap, and the Surly Krampus arrives soon to fill it.  Large volume tires in more practical everyday sizes and weights will continue to roll in, as will the frames that can handle them.  Expect to see more lightweight (non-DH) 2.5-3.5″ tires in the future.  The Krampus is betting on a lightweight 3.0″ tire on a 50mm-wide 29″ (622mm) rim, and I’m all in.

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In Kremmling, CO a local raft guide rides a new Surly Pugsley with 45North Husker Du tires.  He’s owned full-suspension mountain bikes in the past, but never enjoyed rebuilding suspension parts and linkages after a season of hard use.  On a whim, he hopped on a fatbike.  Of course, he bought it!  He’s devoted several upcoming months between the rafting season and the ski season to play, and his first-ever cycling trip will be on a the new white Pugsley somewhere in the west.  I’ve lent my Great Divide maps and assorted state highway maps, which I’m hopeful will get some use.

On another note, my Schwalbe Big Apples tires have made their way to Anchorage via USPS where they have again found a home on the Surly Man’s Big Donkey.  A modern proverb states, “it takes more than one man to wear through a Schwalbe”.   Below, mountainous snowbanks persist though late March in Anchorage, conquered only by the mighty Mukluks.  The snowbanks would not disappear until sometime in May.

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The “promise of fat tires” was realized late at night as an indirect rebuttal to a recent article on Mike Varley’s Black Mountain Cycles blog.   A favorite cycle-centric digest, Mike reflects expertly on old bikes, new technology and practical tire sizes.  Check out the BMC Cross frame, which features the largest tire clearance of any non-suspension corrected steel 700c/29″ bike available.  With a fast-rolling 1.9-2.1″ tire, this frame would make a real dirt road scorcher!

Three Trolls

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At last count there were two, but now, there are three Surly Trolls in our Divide caravan. The Troll, especially for American riders, is quickly becoming the dirt touring bike of choice for rides like the Divide, and travel abroad. No need to squeeze mountain bike tires into an LHT, or import Thorn frames from the UK; for $400+ dollars Surly gives you (almost) everything you could want.

Lael’s back, on a whim– another wild hair (or hare). We are: an LHT, three Trolls, and a high-performance High Sierra. Keep laughing– we are.

Salida is a haven of good living and a mecca of mountain biking– there’s nothing not to like about this place. Mid-October days in the mid-seventies, unpretentious town bikes of all shapes and sizes, singletrack that begins a few blocks from Main Street; and real nice people– there’s nothing not to like.

Greg, Lael and I loaded up yesterday, fully intending to leave town and resume our Divide adventures. We selected to ride several miles of singletrack toward town– the Backbone Trail. Two hours later we were exhausted and elated as we descended from the hills into the heart of Salida, panting beneath the willows that shade both the boulevard and the Arkansas River. It was late afternoon by that time, and we were– quite naturally– tired, and staying another day.

We depart this morning for the Monarch Crest Trail, a locally famous bit of singletrack that crests the Continental Divide– following the CDT and the Colorado Trail along it’s length– above treeline for 12 glorious miles, before descending over three thousand feet on one of several return routes to Salida. This should be, in unconventional terms, “epic”. At least, I have a good reason to eat a big breakfast

It’s been a while: Ute Pass, Breckenridge, Boreas Pass at 11,482 ft, and some beautiful riding weather to Salida. We are all thrilled to have company– Lael, Nancy, Greg, Cass, and myself. 20111016-105245.jpg20111016-105305.jpg20111016-105329.jpg20111016-105600.jpg20111016-105817.jpg20111016-105947.jpg20111016-110113.jpg20111016-110241.jpg20111016-110637.jpg20111016-110921.jpg20111016-110943.jpg

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Trolls and a Mule; en la Alta Sierra

20111010-105634.jpgWe leave on the snowiest day yet. Large flakes, accumulating in sequence on frozen leaves, cars parked overnight, grass, and roadways– we all agree– are better than the windy, rainy tempests of several days ago. Snow is certainly better than 34 degree rain.

Cass and Nancy arrived at “half midnight”; the following day was full of framebags (by Scott, of Porcelain Rocket) and Fanta (not for consumption, not for Nancy; for 1.25L water storage), Surly Trolls (x2), a Tout-Terrain Mule, and a lot of decision-making. Every bike trip– every journey– begins with some anticipation and anxiety. Imagine Nancy’s nerves as she tests a new mode of travel, coached by self-proclaimed experts. She’s pretty well pickled with good advice and better intentions, and she has more than the right gear thanks to knowing a guy like Cass; but the truth is that it’s snowing at 6600 ft in Steamboat and we’re only going up from here. I casually describe our first day as one big hill and further widen her eyes. We explain that, in truth, it is a gentle climb to 8900 ft over 50 miles. Hmmm, I guess those numbers mean something different to her than they do to me. Our host, Andy, describes a gentle grade: “the hill may be imperceptible, but every few minutes you check to see if you have a flat tire”. She looks at all of us suspiciously.

Within two days we’ve ridden and camped in the snow, mounted passes, forded icy streams, and slogged through mucky roads. Nancy has fast-tracked to expert status.

The cabin is an historic rural stop-off; serving as a mail stop, a guest house, and a Wells Fargo depository.

For the official, hi-fi version of our travels, check Cass’ blog, “while out riding”.

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Aspen, willow, and oak

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As the elk call in RMNP, aspen radiate yellow electricity. The willow along the Colorado River call with a similar hue, infused with burnt orange. The scrub oak– as I descend toward Steamboat and below 7000 ft– are an expired red, almost brown.

Of late, I lay skid marks on the road as I hope to capture– mentally, and with the hasty touch of my iPod screen– the moment of sunlight filtering through lightning bright aspens, quaking in anticipation of storm clouds. The aspen– trembling, quaking, waving– alter their mood from celebratory dance to excited warning as sunlight fades to shadows. Sometimes its not supposed to be summer-warm and fall-colorful at the same time; and sometimes the townies in Steamboat are a little to quick to warn of the impending weather as if I don’t know the date, the seasons, or how to find ten-day forecasts and Dopplar radar projections. But days like this are without match and a few town-bums aren’t ruining my fun. Statistically, there’s a chance of snow on October 5th. But it’s not snowing — yet– and on a bicycle, at the right pace and place and time, days like this actually happen.

Grey skies and storm clouds in Colorado are rich with energy, and the same is said to be true of NM and Utah and Arizona and west Texas.

I’ve been reading some Aldo Leopold and keep running across John Muir and his disciples– people who bring philosophy to life, and elevate the art of living to philosophy. Of wilderness ethics and living in and living with the “wild”, these men are uncontested heroes. Unlike Muir, I have not watched the sun rise and set on the same granite peak from the same vantage, all day. Nor have I observed the migration of birds year after year, after year like Leopold. I’m not that patient or thoughtful; but I’ve seen many sunsets and many fewer sunrises, and many birds whose names I don’t know. I’ve experienced the seasons in a continuous, although incongruable mess that in the past three years has included everything but winter.

I’m honing my personal wilderness ethic that considers both the time I’ve spent waiting out rainstorms in Safeways and libraries and also the lazy, naked, sun-filled days up some creek I hope nobody else knows about. Imagine if Aldo and John and I had shared an apartment in town, and ridden bikes along the river trail and pulled tap-water from a dammed public water source. These are functional facts of life that I’m talking over with my new “housemates”. No matter if a man can live off the land, alone, in the woods; 7 billion others are not, and won’t and can’t. Bike commuting with Aldo and an inelegant house party with John?…a make-believe tea party for a kid like me.

Muir’s evocations of the wild are powerful stuff for most people, but practical concerns weigh heavily as well. Nobody wants their mid-western cousins to yield less corn, or their neighbors not to have the great job that requires an hour-long commute by car. Thankfully, Muir is the radical that you can invite to the dinner table. Despite being Scottish, he’s very American.

Not winter; not really, not yet. I will undoubtedly have some dramatic photos of three inches of snow on my bike in the next week. But that’s still not winter, it’s just early season snow in a high place that– moments ago– allowed the cut-off T-shirt I’ve worn all summer.
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